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Schools forum addresses broad range of issues

By Staff | Sep 4, 2015

Teachers and community members attended a forum Wednesday where they had the opportunity to share their concerns.

“I’m here because when I was invited I thought this was an opportunity for me to support the teachers who are the people we count on to help us accomplish our mission, which is to ensure every student meets his or her maximum personal potential,” Board Member Mary Fischer said.

The Teachers Association of Lee County held a town hall style forum Wednesday at the Cape Coral Library Branch for an hour.

Fischer began the forum by sharing some news from the district.

That afternoon, she said the school board had an educational round table meeting at the board room, which was the “brainchild” of State Rep. Matthew Caldwell. The meeting consisted of individuals from legislation delegation, the Lee County commissioners and the county manager.

“One thing they were asking of us is what do we need them to do legislatively to help us get rid of our capital funding crisis,” she said. “Of course we went through all of the things we have gone through a number of times before about how our budget is smaller now than before it was in 2008 and how we have grown 12,000 students since 2005.”

Fischer said they asked if the state would consider giving the district some local control regarding assessments and allowing them to evaluate the students the way the know best.

The capital crisis was also discussed a little further because the school district is growing by at least 1,000 students a year. Teachers are also part of the discussion, Fischer said, because the district needs to pay its teachers what they are truly worth.

“I think that we need to find a way to market what our teachers do and bring that respect back,” she said. “There was a time that you were a teacher and that is a good thing, but unfortunately that has changed.”

A sales tax referendum of a half a penny is among some of the options the district has explored in generating more funds.

“If we were to go out for a sales tax referendum of a half a penny, we could get free every year a minimum of $50 million,” she said, which would help them build schools, maintain schools and pay for technology that is required. “We need to educate the public of what that actually means and how the half penny sales tax would give us the money we need to pay down our debt, help us to build schools as our growth continues and then be able to fund programs, such as art and music.”

Many individuals that attended the forum were teachers of the district who shared multiple concerns. Such topics as acquiring teachers and support staff for the schools was touched upon by a teacher in attendance because he said they are responsible for an “insane” amount of work.

Fischer said the district is feverishly working to recruit and hire people because they know retention is a problem for the district.

“Our teacher colleges locally do not produce nearly a fraction of the number of educators that we need,” she said, adding that they are using some of their long-term substitute teachers to help.

The school district has roughly 1,200 substitute teachers they can call upon, 900 of whom have bachelor or master degrees, and 58 who have PHDs, EEDs and are a specialist of some kind.

District monitoring checkpoints were also discussed, which are district level tests that provides data of how students are doing on standards.

The old tests were given at the beginning of the year, testing students on standards they had never heard of before.

“If you want to know how to increase student learning give them more time to learn,” Kathy McKinnon, a teacher at Trafalger Middle School, said. “They do not learn while they are testing. If you want to learn less, test more.”

She said Trafalger had one of the top science scores in the district with 76 percent of students scoring a 3 or above, which included all of their students. McKinnon said Sanibel beat them by 1 percent and they beat the district, which had 46 percent pass rate.

“I test very little. There is a reason why I do that. While I’m testing they are not learning,” she said. “Our scores will only go down the more we test. The state said this year, you don’t have to do this (test) anymore.”

Fischer said there is no way the district needs to do a 25-question test to test a standard.

“I am not in favor of all this testing,” Fischer said. “I am in favor of teachers having time to teach. You are certified by the state as qualified to teach. I think we need to untie your hands and let you teach.”

Discussion about salaries was also a topic during the forum.

Jennifer Tomlinson, a teacher at Fort Myers High School said she became acutely aware last year that teachers in her salary range between 24 and 26 years were making on average $3,000 less than teachers who had the same amount of experience coming into the district.

“It undervalues the teachers that are veterans in the district,” Tomlinson said.

In 2008, she said the teachers voted to teach an extra class period. Since 2008, teachers have had a planning period every other day, Tomlinson said.

“I don’t think it is really just a teacher issue, it is certainly a student issue. Eight classes is too many for our students to take. It is very stressful for them,” she said. “Our teachers are frazzled, it’s been going on for so long. The new teachers don’t know if they are coming and going and the veteran teachers are buried. They want to know when they can retire and that is a shame because they are dedicated, hard working, valuable teachers.”

Mark Castellano, president of TALC, said scheduling is on the table again this year.

“We are talking about secondary scheduling, high schools,” he said. “We have actually agreed to form a committee to study secondary scheduling to try and fix exactly what you are talking about.”

Castellano said, as far as salaries, they are addressing that subject and have uncovered some interesting data.